I don’t know if I’m just now noticing, noticing the way some writers repeat certain words or phrases for emphasis. But I’ve been seeing this so much lately, seeing how authors are taking a word or two from the beginning of a sentence and using them again to elaborate, using them in a way that I think is supposed to sound lyrical. As with any writing technique it can be done well, done well in a way that emphasizes a key word or two. But when it’s overused, overused again and again, it can begin to drive the reader crazy, crazy in a way that you definitely don’t want to drive a reader.
Please be careful with repetition, repetition that can become distracting if it’s used too much, used too much in an attempt to create a lyrical style, a lyrical style that is undermined by the repetition.
I think I do this.
Again, good advice, Bransford. Damn.
I was discussing The Underneath by Kathi Appelt just yesterday with my class of 12 to 15 year olds. The repetition in her book thrilled some of us and annoyed others. It offered a great way to discuss motifs and, in particular, the literary device of leitwortstil ("leading-word style"): the leitwort (leading word) underscores a theme important to the work and the author repeats the leitwort to make sure the reader doesn't miss major themes. I think Appelt does this masterfully in her repetition of the words respect, promise, missing, and the warning–do not. Hers is lyrical language done well . . . really, really well.
Please don't hate me, as I mean this in a fun way — but I've kind of been feeling this repetition with all the ebooks posts on the blog lately. Ebooks! Here to stay! Ever evolving publishing world! Ebooks! Love them or not, here to stay! Kindle! iPad! Nook! Sony Reader! Did I mention ebooks! 🙂
Nathan Bransford says
Don't shoot the messenger!
Nathan — no, no, I won't. I LIKE the messenger! And the messenger's blog!
Thank you Nathan! I will now feverishly read manuscript for repetition. THIS is exactly why all publishing hopefuls can benefit from reading publishing blogs.
Moira Young says
*resists a repetitive comment since the poor dead horse has already been beaten to a bloody pulp* 😉
I think it's one of those Internet diseases. Those things are unconsciously contagious.
Ever notice how many times H.P. Lovecraft uses the word "cyclopean" in one single story? Robert E. Howard does a better job, but there was still a stock of hard, punchy adjectives and nouns he used, and recombining them endlessly doesn't solve the whole problem.
I'll keep an eye on this in my scribbling.
D. G. Hudson says
Perhaps the writers who use this 'lyrical' emphasis are reticent poets. This is an interesting trend that I hadn't noticed.
The occasional use wouldn't bother me, but it sounds so trendy. Like it's trying too hard to be noticed.
Thanks for the warning on another pitfall for writers. Just use 'clean' writing, no repetitious fillers.
Peter Dudley says
I believe this comes from cable TV "news." Read Nathan's post out loud, out loud with the overly emphatic voice of a reporter, a reporter live on the scene, the scene where nothing has happened yet the news media, news media from all over, are on hand to cover the event.
verification word: deval
short for devalue; can be shortened even further to dval for texting purposes
Kia Abdullah says
Love this! Thanks for a much-needed giggle, Nathan.
grey's anatomy is the absolute worst for it. And all the characters do it. If one did it, then fine, it is quirky. But they all have the same voice, even the guest stars.
Kia Abdullah says
Just to add my random two-pence (or cents for you Yanks), I think it's so important to read out loud to really hear the cadence of your writing. Of course, different things work for different people, but I really started to hear things that I was repeating (although not in the intentional sense Nathan is referring to).
For example, I wrote something like "He walked up the corridor and opened the door". For some bizarre reason, I didn't catch how terrible the repetition of 'door' sounded until I read it out loud. But anyway, back to the giggling. I really loved this post!
You know who did this effectively? Gary Paulsen in Hatchet. But it was a survival story (we've probably all read it)and the repetition felt like survival self-talk that worked. otherwise it kills me, too distracting.
Kat Harris says
Dang. That's irritating.
Ah ha ha ha ha…I find it difficult to write this way. When I'm writing my books, I try not to repeat words in the same paragraph if at all possible, and when I do repeat the word, I try to do it no more than once or twice (so I use the word two or three times). Just my style, I guess.
T. Anne says
Thank you. I have a ringing headache now.
I just beta'd a manuscript where the dialogue did this. The characters rambled the same thing with different words throughout the whole piece. Drove me nuts!
If you read that kind of thing frequently, hats off to you for your patience.
TERI REES WANG says
Is that like, when everyone like, over uses the word "like"….
like a lot?
I'm not sure if you're kidding or being serious. Maybe you're attempting satire by repeating the all-caps. Perhaps you're pointing out that many agents haven't proven themselves in novels, yet judge them anyway.
Your point is confusing.
If you are being negative (and not joking), your point is based in hypocrisy. Just the fact that Nathan's blog is widely read means … um… he IS successful at writing (not a failure).
I'm not like others on here: I don't fall all over myself to compliment the highly respected Mr. Bransford. But I do recognize his writing skillz; blog or otherwise.
Skillz, I say…Skillz.
I remain anonymous because I'm a coward. 🙂
RR Kovar says
I do my best to avoid repeating words (outside of pronouns, etc.) on a single page. There are so very many synonyms in our lovely language that I feel they should each have a chance. Or, should none of them please me, it behooves me to rephrase or cut.
M. Gray says
Wow!! Point taken!! I know Martin Luther King Jr. used anaphora well. George Bush used it in a lot of his speeches, but I agree, we need to use it well.
Painful. (painful) (…. painful)
anon @ 11:04
I totally agree about Grey's Anatomy! It is a show of speeches. The character starts with one thing "I'm good with my hands" or whatever and always ends the same way. Ugh. You are right; every character is the same. Quirky and spazzy and speechy. Still, I watch it. For whatever reason.
Sorry for the digression. It felt good to get that off my chest.
Ray Rhamey says
Er, would you mind going through that again?
Donna Hole says
Man, do I hear you on that score.
word verif: symando. Edit annotation for: Say man, don't double dip on symantics.
Doreen McGettigan says
I will be so obsessively careful now not to do this…
Theresa Milstein says
Oh, no. I just wrote a post called, "C is for" and I repeated that phrase throughout. Well, my commenters thought it was funny…
You can say that again.
Funnily put in a way that it sticks in one's head. Thanks for the tip, for the tip.
Chuck H. says
Hemingway did this. I don't care for Hemingway.
I've seen writers use it for emphasis and it works – once.
This is funny! 🙂 At least it was funny until I realized that I do this ALL the time. And then it wasn't so FUNNY any more.
But first, I want to say, your post ended too soon, Nathan. I was enjoying it, and starting to envision a bongo and people dancing to it, like some sort of beat poetry.
In terms of how this affects me as a writer, it's definitely food for thought. When I first read your post, I thought, nah, I never do this. Then I realized I do it all the time. I use it to build tension, or set up humor. Using the same word over and over creates a particular effect.
But it never occured to me that it was annoying – although maybe it did. Sometimes I'm deliberately annoying in my voice – I'm not sure why – maybe to wake the reader up alittle.
So, I'll look at this. I guess what I'd like to explore is when it's effective, and when it's just irritating.
But either way, it's useful to examine. And see? I used 'it's' three times just now. But that kept to the rhythm. Using another word would change the rhythm. Well, now I'm confused, but in a good way.
I'm also rambling, but that's because IT'S just so interesting.
Matilda McCloud says
Thanks for pointing out this writing faux pas, a faux pas I never would have been aware had you not posted it on this day, a March day when we are finally feeling the hint of spring…
Marilyn Peake says
That is so funny. So very funny. So very, very funny. Also, quite funny…referring to the funny way in which you said that. Just sayin'.
However, I have noticed that some books – including some very successful best-selling books published by the big publishing houses – include the type of repetition you're warning against. I can think of one very successful series in particular in which repetition of words and phrases was part of the overall writing style. I agree with you, and I know you're right. But I swear that every rule for successful writing gets broken in very successful books, and sometimes in clumsy, not-so-genius kinds of ways. The more I read, the more I discover that almost no book is perfect. Nearly all books break some of the rules, and many fall short of perfection somewhere between the first and last pages. I’m reading a novel right now that won a major book award. That book has been sheer perfection right through the first 90% of it (I know because my Kindle says I’m 90% through the book, LOL). All of a sudden, I find myself thinking, "Ugh. What’s happening here? The writing’s so rushed, just page after page of dialogue unraveling the mysterious parts of the book. Boooooring."
I think you mean that breaking a rule shouldn't be overdone or the writer risks losing a reader before they finish the book, and I understand that completely. Good advice, as usual!
Kristin Laughtin says
As always, always, I laughed hard at how humorously you made your point.
Marilyn Peake says
I should add that, a few years ago, contest judges that liked my writing pointed out that I would have scored more points had I used less repetition. It was a great learning experience for me. I now edit every sentence I write, experimenting with ways to change repetitions into different words that still convey the same meaning. It’s become an enjoyable challenge for me.
A nice end-of-day LAUGH for me, me who is tired. Thanks!
Marilyn Peake…I like what you said 🙂
I use this tactic 2-3 times in my novel, but one usage is within the first 5 pages. So, a) now I can expect some agents/readers who saw this post and who are reading my sample pages to be hyperaware and potentially turned off, b) this probably played a part in my 20-minute R on a query +5 from NB, and c) I just eliminated my use of that device in the opening chapters. Good heads-up but I wish this post came out a month ago.
I never repeat myself or use the same words twice in any way near each other. But, oh criminey, didn't I do it just yesterday, on another blog! How could I? Maybe that was the only time…
Words repeated endlessly as the lyrics of a song drive me nuts! I think the singer must either have terrible memorization skills or the writer thinks his listeners are completely dense.
Nathan Bransford says
a) I said in the post it can be done well and readers know this, b) my point was about excessive repetition not doing it once, c) keep your head up! Querying is a process.
Marilyn Peake says
Although I haven’t watched GREY’S ANATOMY, I enjoyed the discussion about it here in the Comments section. Another show, PUSHING DAISIES, plays with language in the most brilliant ways. Anyone here watched that show? I watched the entire series on DVD, and was very sorry that it only lasted two seasons. Here’s a play on Shakespeare's words in Episode 3, entitled BAD HABITS, of PUSHING DAISIES:
Emerson: What got thee to a nunnery?
Olive: Oh, Emerson. You really want to know?
Emerson: Not especially. That was just my attempt at polite wee talk. Moment's passed, so let's talk compensation.
PUSHING DAISIES does use repetition quite frequently, but in ways that play with the words and use the repetition to create effect. Here’s repetition in Episode 2, entitled CIRCUS CIRCUS:
Emerson: You know how to knock?
Georgeann Heaps: I did knock. I came in, I said to myself, "I hope this good man can help me, knock wood," and then I knocked. My name is Georgeann Heaps.
Emerson: It's my nature to reward pushiness with inattention, Mrs. Heaps.
I love that show!
The Red Angel says
LOVE, love this post. 😛 You make a great point that, well, points out a habit that a ton of writers are guilty of.
Moira Young says
Pushing Daisies was too good for television. I still miss it terribly.
Castle's not bad, though. I don't usually watch crime shows, but it's a lot of fun. (The fact that it stars Captain Tightpants from Firefly is just gravy.)
Steven Till says
I agree. Absolutely, that makes perfect sense to me.
Marilyn Peake says
I agree with absolutely everything you said! PUSHING DAISIES has such excellent quality – in every aspect: writing, acting and cinematography. The visual aspects are stunning! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything on TV with colors that pop like that. And it seems to me that the show might have color motifs that were created on purpose. For a while, whenever Olive was in the restaurant, she was wearing green and the setting was mostly shades of green. Then, suddenly, Olive became associated with bright orange. Really awesome! I love CASTLE, although I don’t think it’s nearly as good as PUSHING DAISIES. I thought FIREFLY was excellent…as was Captain Tightpants. 🙂 And, unfortunately, that series was cancelled after only 11 of the first 14 episodes aired! I heard that it was because of a dispute between Joss Whedon and FOX, although I don’t know if that’s actually true or not. I heard that he was told not to fade to black because that was a cue for commercials, so he started fading to a color close to black that fooled the TV equipment into not thinking the fade was there. I heard the TV executives were really mad when they realized what had happened, and then cancelled the show.
I think the point is that "less is more." It can work very effectively is used selectively. (No rhyming intended.) Just because one shot of vodka makes you more fun to be around, a dozen can make you pain in the ass.
Your posts are hilarious! You have such a fun way of saying things. 🙂 I know I'm guilty of this, but hoping I don't do it excessively. Pretty sure I don't…*runs off to check manuscript*
Cory Emberson says
Flogged, flogged in such a way…
Oh, never mind.
Here's my particular earworm from the world of TV. The well-employed writers of the tweenish ABC Family show "Secret Life of the American Teenager" have a script-writing challenge, for sure. However, do they get a generous bonus every time the phrase "have sex" is spoken?
I'm going to get an umpire's clicker to keep track.
Excellent blog, Nathan! Love it, from all the way across the Bay, near the nuclear lab.